Climate change:

The year started off with a focus on the most pressing environmental issue of our time: climate change.

In January, we convened some of Ottawa’s leading political figures driving the climate change conversation at a community town hall. Catherine McKenna, David Chernushenko and Tobi Nussbaum were asked about the links between cities and climate change, and about where we as a city needed to go next. While the panelists had a range of ideas and suggestions on next steps, the consensus was clear: we need to do more, and we need to act quickly.

Meanwhile, we continued to push city hall for more funding for its climate plan, to ramp up the frequency of emissions reporting, and to move into high gear by responding to the scope and scale required by the climate emergency.

Of course, there were headwinds. The provincial government’s gutting of key programs like GreenON and cap-and-trade not only hurt provincial progress on climate change, but did profound damage to the City of Ottawa’s efforts.

At the same time as it allowed home-owners to save money on energy, GreenON was powering green local businesses like companies that specialize in windows, insulation and home retrofits. Without GreenON, Ottawans have one less tool to tackle the largest source of local climate emissions – the ones that come from how we heat, cool and electrify our homes, offices and other buildings.

The death of cap-and-trade is an even more serious blow to provincial and municipal climate action. Cap-and-trade revenues being directed to tangible projects that served to improve Ottawans’ daily lives just as much as they helped fight climate change. The loss of this program means millions fewer dollars invested in social housing retrofits, pedestrian and cycling infrastructure projects like the Flora Footbridge, complete streets around light rail stations, and more energy efficient schools and hospitals.

Worse still, the City of Ottawa relies on carbon pricing to accomplish its climate targets. By eliminating cap-and-trade, the province has once again made it free for Ontarians to pollute. This means Ottawans are now getting exactly the wrong price signals. The province is essentially encouraging a reversion back to less efficient houses, less efficient cars and poorer transit.

In late November, the province’s climate plan cemented its position as a true laggard on climate change, even as the United Nations tells us we’re in the midst of a climate emergency and have only 11 years to avoid catastrophic impacts by accelerating our ambition.

Municipal election and watching city council:

Even with the province sitting on the sidelines, there is much that the city can do to lead on the climate file and other vital issues. Throughout the municipal election, we worked hard to engage residents of the city in our campaign to elect a greener city council. With the help of a dedicated group of volunteers, we reached 6,000 doors in the communities of Blackburn Hamlet and Orléans. We got direct input into the environmental matters most relevant to voters and encouraged them to vote for environmental leadership in the municipal election. On election day, our team made 2,100 phone calls to get environmentally-minded voters to the polls city-wide.

We also engaged candidates for mayor and council directly. Along with an environment survey sent to all candidates running for office, we met and discussed environmental issues with 30 candidates across all areas of the city, and worked with enthusiastic volunteers to organize debates city-wide and in four wards. With huge help from volunteers working to encourage candidates to respond, over 70 candidates answered our environment survey.

When the election results rolled in, it became clear that council had likely changed for the better. There is now a majority on council who are committed to unprecedented action on a number of environmental initiatives over the next four years.

Again, there are headwinds. The mayor was non-committal in his survey responses and completely skipped our all-candidates’ debate on the environment, co-organized with seven incredible environmental organizations from across the city. Progress on these issues would be much easier with leadership from the top, but there are still many opportunities for progress with the mayor sitting on the sidelines.

The mayor’s recent committee selection process is also alarming. At city council on December 12, Jim Watson largely shut urban councillors out of key committees and committee leadership positions. Urban councillors across five wards – Rideau-Vanier, Rideau-Rockcliffe, Somerset, Kitchissippi and Capital – represent over one fifth of Ottawa’s roughly 1 million residents. These five councillors were prevented from joining committees that play a huge role on environmental files.

We responded by launching “Don’t Cut out the Core,” a campaign urging Watson to fix Ottawa’s committee structure by including voices from every area of the city. Already, over 325 people have written the mayor to express their concerns. Critical articles have been released and the mayor is now facing tough questions in the media.

We can secure a better council if Ottawans keep up the pressure. You can email Jim Watson today by clicking here.

Trees, parks and green infrastructure:

Tree giveaways have become a vital part of Ecology Ottawa’s annual work plan. In 2018, Ecology Ottawa volunteers and staff gave away 9,000 trees at the door and at events all across the city. The point wasn’t simply to get trees in the hands of Ottawans – although this is critical if we want to fully restore our urban tree canopy after the devastation of the Emerald Ash Borer.

More broadly, the aim was to reach out and connect with new people. Trees spark important conversations – on the look and feel of our city, on environmental protection, and on adapting to invasive species and other impacts stemming from climate change.

Speaking of important conversations, in April Ecology Ottawa held a second annual Ottawa Park Summit, along with groups like Park People and the Greenspace Alliance of Canada’s Capital. Visitors met with local groups active on the parks file and discovered more opportunities to take part in park-related activities. As part of our ongoing partnership with Park People, we also rolled out a program called Les amis des parcs. This program, which seeks to engage the local franco-Ontarian population in celebrating and activating area parks and green space, has been a huge success so far.

2018 was also marked by a dynamic conversation about green infrastructure – the living and built systems that slow down, soak up and filter water where it falls. In the spring, we released a report on the state of green infrastructure in Ottawa. We then engaged Ottawa residents in town hall discussions about how Ottawa could do more. We attracted media buzz with our call for a green roofs bylaw, and secured thousands of petition signatures on our call for more green infrastructure ambition from the city. In the fall, we embarked on a new campaign to engage residents at the door about the potential for green infrastructure solutions at the household and neighbourhood level.

Complete streets and active transportation:

In May, we came out with a report on the state of the City of Ottawa’s progress on the active transportation file. The report was released with a panel discussion featuring current and former councillors and other community leaders, attended by over 100 people passionate about walking and biking in Ottawa.

Our report found that the City was making headway with meaningful investments in our urban fabric. It is critical that we sustain this momentum, especially if we want to secure more access to light rail through low- or zero-emissions modes of transportation.

Once again, the province’s actions are threatening Ottawa’s progress here; cuts to cap-and-trade mean less provincial revenues for important projects that connect pedestrians and cyclists with the places they need to go. But there are other opportunities for Ottawa to fill the gap. One potential source is federal money. A second is the city’s own coffers. Our report pointed to a structural problem in the city’s infrastructure management. Even while it makes important investments in pedestrian and cycling projects, city spending remains overwhelmingly focused on the car. New roads and road widenings gobble up massive portions of the city’s budget, and all on the basis of no evidence that they actually do anything to reduce congestion.

Getting transportation right will make Ottawa smarter in a number of ways. As we look ahead to 2019, we are eager to dive deeper on the future of Ottawa’s active transportation system, especially with the advent of light rail transit. Get ready for volunteer-led streets audits around LRT stations and citizen-led monitoring of LRT’s environmental footprint.

Where we need to go next:

We urgently need to make progress across a wide range of issues in 2019 and over the next four years. We see two key opportunities to get started on the right foot: the budget process and the Term of Council Priorities process.

The budget, which will be presented in February and finalized in March, is critical to sustaining and accelerating ambition across all of our files. For example, the City adopted a best-in-class forest management plan in 2017, but this will only proceed with sustained funding commitments. Meanwhile, investments in pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, which were higher than expected in the last term of council, run the risk of petering out in the absence of provincial investment. And on the climate file, we must continue to fund the important work of Energy Evolution as well as ramp up investment on key initiatives that will drive down Ottawa’s emissions.

The Term of Council Priorities process, which will roll out over the next five to six months, sets the agenda for the entire term of council, with spending and policy initiatives dedicated accordingly. Again, so much comes down to the climate crisis and the level of the city’s response. In the last prioritization process, climate change and climate initiatives were included, but only as small items, whose implementation was delayed and piecemealed.

The next Term of Council must reflect the climate emergency we are now in. The United Nations tells us we have 11 years to act, and the next term of council occupies the first four years of this emergency period. We want to see climate action given much more attention in the next term, with a whole-of-government approach to doing our fair share with unprecedented and ambitious action.

Other cities understand that climate change means an end to business as usual. London, UK, for instance, has just declared a bold new direction in line with the latest science, putting forward targets to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. And while climate change is a daunting challenge, we know that investments in this area are exactly the ones we need to make Ottawa more liveable, resilient and vibrant as a city. We need record ambition in shifting our transportation system away from car-dependency, new dollars in transit and active transportation, ambitious plans for low-carbon community design, and ambitious targets for energy efficiency that will make our built environment more livable while powering good, local green jobs.

We will also be pushing for ambitious implementation of green infrastructure – the living and built systems designed to slow down, soak up and filter rain water where it falls. While cities around the world are experimenting with green roofs, green streets and ambitious plans for climate resilience, the City – notwithstanding the amazing work of talented and dedicated staff – is mired in what seems to be a perpetual trial phase.

Last summer, we pushed the idea of a green roofs bylaw, and were thanked by councillors who felt its time has come. Imagine this and so much more – an ambitious plan to systematically integrate green infrastructure into new streets when they are built or re-built. It’s this kind of thinking that will simultaneously make Ottawa a city that is quite literally “greener,” while also helping to buttress climate impacts like heat waves and flooding.

When it comes to active transportation, we have a number of issues we will be pushing. These include Vision Zero, a policy ask to eliminate death and serious injury on Ottawa’s streets, and better connectivity links for cyclists and pedestrians to access light rail.

On this front, we need to look at both sides of the transportation equation. We must put a stop to the “all-of-the-above” transportation policy Ottawa is currently pushing, where wider sidewalks and bike lanes are built in one end of the city while wider highways and car-centric communities are built in another. City policy says pedestrians and cyclists come first, but the evidence – both in terms of built infrastructure and funding commitments – does not bear this out. Ottawa continues to build entire communities that are under-serviced by transit and that have baked-in reliance on the car.

Meanwhile, against all evidence of the futility of widening roads to relieve congestion, we continue regardless. Our costly new roads put a giant dent in the city’s budget, threatening much-needed investments while plaguing future budgets with ongoing maintenance costs. In 2019, we need to have an adult conversation on bold ideas like congestion charges (quashed by the last council) and car-free zones in certain areas of the city.

Related to all of our issues is the key question of how the city will develop its new Official Plan. The Official Plan is the city’s flagship policy document when it comes to land use planning – in essence, it dictates the future shape and development of Ottawa, and it has profound implications on everything from community design plans to the transportation network.

The Official Plan will be revised and renewed over the course of the next council, laying out a long-term vision to 2036. It is critical that this revised plan embed low-carbon development principles into Ottawa’s DNA. We need new communities to embed the principles of density, good design, walkability, bike-friendliness and transit-connectedness right from the start – not as an afterthought.

On a related note, the next year will see an important debate over whether or not to expand Ottawa’s urban boundary, the amount of developable land within the city. We think it is critical that Ottawa reject any urban boundary expansion. The reasons for this are multiple, from preserving the character and integrity of the many rural villages within the borders of our city, to preserving the green space and farmland that sustains us all, to ensuring that sprawl is rejected in favour of denser, more walkable communities.

Obviously, there’s a lot of work to do, and it’s an impossible task without your support. Big challenges like protecting urban green space, fighting car-dependency and taking unprecedented climate action need the support of tens of thousands of people in order to succeed. Luckily, we have that on our side. This year, our supporter list grew close to 90,000 people, each of which shares our values on the question of the environment.

What we really need to do next is to organize, and that takes talented and dedicated staff who are willing to engage our large base of support. That is why, as we approach the end of 2018, we’re asking for a year-end gift to power this important work.

We can only make Ottawa the green capital of Canada with your help. Please consider becoming a sustaining, monthly donor today or making a year-end gift.

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